How Can Community-Based Social Enterprises Revitalize UK’s Struggling High Streets?

In the face of an increasing number of closures on high streets across the UK, community-based social enterprises are stepping up to breathe new life into these vital local economic hubs. Their unique approach to business, driven by social outcomes rather than profit, holds the potential to transform struggling high streets into thriving community spaces.

Harnessing the Power of Social Enterprises

The concept of a social enterprise is one that is deeply rooted in community values. These businesses are led not by the pursuit of profit, but by the desire to create a positive impact within the communities in which they operate. They succeed not only by selling goods or services but also by addressing social challenges and enhancing local wellbeing.

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Consequently, social enterprises can bring a fresh, innovative approach to traditional high street businesses. By focusing on delivering social value, they can offer products and services that are closely aligned with the needs of the local community, thereby driving footfall and encouraging local spending.

An example is The Bread and Butter Thing, a Manchester-based social enterprise that provides deeply discounted groceries to low-income families. Their model, which includes a physical store on the high street, not only helps to address food poverty but also promotes local spending and boosts the local economy.

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Creating a More Sustainable High Street

Social enterprises also embody the principles of sustainability, offering an alternative to the throwaway culture that characterises much of the high street. They often champion local produce and artisans, reducing carbon footprints, supporting local economies, and fostering a sense of community.

Take, for instance, The Bristol Wood Recycling Project. This social enterprise rescues and reuses wood that would otherwise go to waste, offering high-quality, sustainable products for sale and providing employment opportunities for local people. By operating on the high street, it brings the circular economy into the heart of the community, encouraging more sustainable shopping habits.

Furthermore, many social enterprises, such as Seagulls Reuse in Leeds, offer repair and upcycling services, challenging the “buy new” mentality and promoting longer product lifetimes. These initiatives not only contribute to environmental sustainability but also add to the diversity and vibrancy of the high street.

Building Stronger Communities through Social Enterprises

Social enterprises have a unique ability to bring communities together. By involving local people in decision-making processes and encouraging volunteering, they can foster a sense of collective ownership and pride.

For example, the Heeley Development Trust in Sheffield operates various community facilities, including a local park and a city farm. It offers volunteering opportunities and runs a range of community activities, fostering social cohesion and making the high street a hub of community life.

In addition, social enterprises can play a crucial role in providing employment and training opportunities, particularly for those who may struggle to find work elsewhere. This contributes to social inclusion and economic resilience, both of which are key to revitalising the high street.

Revitalising the High Street through Placemaking

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces. It involves looking at the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and fostering its ongoing evolution. Social enterprises, with their community focus, are ideally positioned to lead placemaking initiatives on the high street.

In Totnes, Devon, the social enterprise Atmos Totnes is leading a community-driven redevelopment of a former dairy site. They have engaged the local community in designing a mixed-use development that includes affordable housing, business space, and community facilities. This project is set to revitalise the town centre and boost the high street.

Similarly, in Scotland, the Stove Network uses art and creativity to engage the community in shaping their town centre. They operate a café and community space on the high street, run a range of community activities, and have led several successful placemaking projects.

The Role of Policy and Support

While social enterprises have the potential to revitalise the high street, they often face a range of challenges, from securing premises to accessing funding. Therefore, it is crucial that they receive appropriate support, both from government and from the wider community, to enable them to thrive.

Currently, there are a number of government schemes and initiatives designed to support social enterprises in the UK. These include the Social Investment Tax Relief, which encourages individuals to invest in social enterprises, and the Social Value Act, which requires public bodies to consider social value when procuring services.

However, there is scope for further policy development to support social enterprises on the high street. This could include measures to make it easier for social enterprises to lease commercial premises, or tailored business support to help these enterprises develop and grow.

Overall, social enterprises have a significant role to play in revitalising the UK’s high streets. By harnessing their power, creating a more sustainable high street, building stronger communities and implementing effective placemaking strategies, there is potential for a social enterprise-led transformation of our local economies – a transformation that delivers not just economic value, but social and environmental value too.

Collaborations and Partnerships for Greater Impact

One way to further enhance the power of social enterprises and their potential to revitalise high streets is through collaborations and partnerships. Joint ventures between social enterprises, local businesses, government institutions, and community organisations can maximise impact and create synergies that lead to sustainable and impactful transformations.

For instance, Made in Ashford, a social enterprise in Kent, collaborates with over 50 local creatives and small businesses to present a diverse range of locally made products in their high street shop. This venture not only supports the local economy, but also creates a vibrant and unique shopping experience that attracts locals and tourists alike.

Partnerships can also play a fundamental role in addressing more complex societal issues. Social Bite, a cafe chain in Scotland, collaborates with various organisations to tackle homelessness. They provide employment opportunities for homeless individuals and run a ‘Pay It Forward’ scheme where customers can pre-buy food and drinks for those in need. Their efforts extend beyond their stores, as they also organise mass fundraising events and work with the Scottish government on housing initiatives.

While these collaborations offer a multitude of benefits, establishing and maintaining them can be challenging. It requires a shared vision, commitment, and effective communication among all parties involved. Therefore, it’s crucial to provide resources and support for social enterprises to build and foster these partnerships.

Conclusion: The Future of High Streets

The rise of community-based social enterprises represents a paradigm shift in how we view and utilise our high streets. Rather than seeing them merely as commercial spaces, we are beginning to recognise their potential to be vibrant, inclusive, and sustainable community hubs.

Social enterprises such as The Bread and Butter Thing, The Bristol Wood Recycling Project, Heeley Development Trust, Atmos Totnes, and The Stove Network – to name but a few – demonstrate the transformative power of this approach. They show us that it is possible to create thriving high streets that not only boost the local economy but also address societal challenges, reduce environmental impact, and enhance community wellbeing.

However, for this transformation to take place on a larger scale, ongoing support and a conducive policy environment are vital. Current initiatives such as the Social Investment Tax Relief and the Social Value Act are positive steps, but more can be done. Policies that facilitate access to premises, tailored business support, and encouragement of collaborations can go a long way in empowering social enterprises to revitalise more high streets across the UK.

In this way, we can collectively ensure that our high streets continue to evolve and thrive, serving not just the economic needs of our communities but their social and environmental needs as well. The future of the UK’s high streets looks promising, with community-based social enterprises leading the way.

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